Saturday, January 6, 2018

Travelogue 2018, Episode 2, Negotiating North Sumatra

From Doha we travelled via Kuala Lumpur to Medan. A rollercoaster of cultures, levels of development, climates, time zones and day-and-night rhythm.  Sumatra is roughly the size of Spain and has a similar number of inhabitants, but its infrastructure is way less developed. So we designed a non-ambitious tour of the province of North Sumatra.

Medan city

At first sight Medan is large, busy, dirty and noisy. At second sight too, but then you also see the relaxed and cheerful people, always willing to give you a big smile and have a chat. Nobody gets upset, everybody is helpful. There are nice vegan eateries and trendy coffee shops. The mood is pleasant, and if the noise and air pollution wouldn’t chase you away, you’d happily stay for a while.

One could measure the degree of development of a country by the number of meters one can walk on the pavement. In Medan the sidewalks are usually blocked by shop fronts, parked cars or motorcycles, or heaps of building materials, mud or dug up sewage sludge. There are holes big enough to fall into the sewer, unexpected steps, loose slabs or ends of reinforcing steel sticking out.

So mostly you walk on the street, between parked cars and the traffic, hoping the drivers will see you. Traffic mainly consists of relatively new cars, motorbikes and becaks – bikes with a side car that you rent for a ride.

One morning after looking at old colonial buildings and Little India, we took a becak home. It was the oldest and most ramshackle one of Medan. The engine stalled all the time, the front wheel wasn’t in line, petrol came via a tube from a jerry can hanging on the steering wheel. When the driver lit a cigarette he held it in his hand right next to the jerry can. We drove slower than the flow of traffic, which was a real problem as weaving in and out of lanes is crucial for negotiation traffic here. Because of the one way system we had to make quite a detour. All in all we took half an hour inhaling exhumes for what would have been a 2½km walk. Still, we survived. And most drivers were relaxed, gave each other room to move, hardly used the horn and didn’t dive into non-existing spaces.

Bukit Lawang jungle

Usually I don’t feel at home in places that are purely touristic. Bukit Lawang is such a place. It’s a village on the edge of a National Park where an orang utan rehabilitation center used to be. The feeding platform used to be a great spot to watch the mighty animals. The platform is closed now and the only way to see the semi wild orang utans that stuck around is on a long, overpriced jungle trekking – and that is what all the tourists do here.

(Here is the story of my 2000 jungle trek)

Bukit Lawang survived thanks to the treks, the river, the fresh air and as a backpacker hangout. We stayed a couple of days in the strip along the river, in the one guesthouse / restaurant that was busy, cozy and had good food.

Then we moved upstream for a couple of days to a rather remote guesthouse, 1km over a small footpath. There we found the real jungle feel. The place was well designed and decorated with lots of wood and bamboo, the Australian-Indonesian couple that ran it made you feel relaxed.

The raging river,  the green wall of jungle on the opposite shore, the monkeys and the butterflies, one more cup of coffee on the veranda – I could get used to that.  Dinner with our hosts in the evening, total darkness at night, the sounds of monkeys and crickets in the morning. After a rain shower water vapor would slowly rise from the forest and form clouds.

Berastagi volcanos

Berastagi is a former Dutch hill station at 1400m. Now it’s an agricultural town, the center of growing non-tropical vegetables. The wholesale market where the farmers bring their produce was a fascinating chaos where huge quantities of carrots, cabbages and potatoes where hauled around in old trucks that got stuck in the mud.

In the weekend Medan people come to escape the city. The dozen western tourists vanish in the crowd. There are two active volcanos nearby, one of which can easily be climbed – and that is what all the tourists do here. We went straight to the hot springs at the end of the descent to soak up the sulphur.
A trip to the foot of the other, even more active volcano was canceled due to the weather. There were daily eruptions, but they lasted just 5 minutes, so you had to be lucky to see one. After one such eruption the mountain had totally hidden itself behind its own cloud of ash. When it started raining a thin layer of volcanic ash covered everything, including our roof terrace.

Just like the rain forest, volcanos create their own clouds. Steam rising from the cracks in the rocks rise and form a cloud that will stick to the top of the mountain.

The weather. The monsoon lasts long this year, it’s cooler than usual with just 23-26 degrees and mostly overcast. Sometimes the sun sort of breaks through, and most rain is at night.

Lake Toba

Travelling in Sumatra isn’t harder than in say India, but over there I know my way around things better. A night in a lousy hotel, a sick day, serious harassment at a bus station, a meal that doesn’t go down well, a credit card that gets rejected – it can be tough and exhausting at times.

All the more pleasant that we could relax at the shores of Lake Toba – and that is what all the tourists do here.

We stayed there for a week and it was the first place on Sumatra where we really felt at home. The mood was relaxed, nature was beautiful. Even though it is rather touristy, there’s enough couleure locale in the small shops and cafes. And it just takes a couple of steps off main street to be among rice paddies and water buffaloes.

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